WASHINGTON — The Obama administration moved to toughen its border policies Friday, hoping to stem a surge of women and children into the United States by sending a stronger message that unauthorized migrants will be turned away.
The steps, aimed at those entering from Mexico, include adding more immigration judges to process a backlog of asylum claims and to more quickly deport adults whose cases are rejected. New detention facilities are also being opened for families awaiting hearings, and ankle monitoring bracelets will be used to keep tabs on them, officials said.
The moves mark a recognition by the administration that an unexpected influx of tens of thousands of immigrant children has become a serious humanitarian and political crisis. So far this year, 52,000 unaccompanied minors and 39,000 adults with children have been apprehended along the Mexican border — much higher numbers than normal.
The surge has become an unexpected flash point in Washington's immigration debate, making it even less likely that House Republicans will support comprehensive reform legislation this year.
Administration officials had previously said the main cause of the influx was an escalation of gang violence and poverty in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. But the new measures Friday represented an acknowledgment that there is a widespread perception in Central America that women and children who enter the United States illegally will be permitted to stay.
Vice President Joe Biden discussed the crisis during a stop in Guatemala on Friday. President Barack Obama also phoned Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on Thursday to emphasize that migrants will not be eligible for legal status or citizenship.
Amid reports of children crammed into border patrol stations, Republicans have faulted the administration's border policies for being weak and contributing to rumors of sanctuary in the United States. The situation presents a serious challenge for Obama as he considers whether to use executive powers to expand the number of undocumented immigrants who can stay in the country without penalty.
Cecilia Munoz, the White House's director of domestic policy, said criminal smuggling networks are deliberately spreading "misinformation" to recruit clients for the trip north. "This is being put forward in a very deliberate way," Munoz said during a conference call with reporters.